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BEHIND THE SCENES with Lu Olkowski, producer of As Black As We Wish to Be


Listening to As Black as We Wish to Be (ABAWWTB), I get the impression that you were welcomed into many homes in East Jackson. Were you surprised by the willingness of people to talk and be recorded?

Early on I was schooled about "Appalachian culture." One of my advisors suggested that I wouldn't be able to get people to speak honestly, if at all. She said because the area is still isolated, people wouldn't talk to an outsider. Isolation and distrust of strangers is one of the great stereotypes of Appalachia. I found it to be only partly true. I interviewed over 29 people (only 13 ended up in the final piece) and I don't think I was directly turned down by anyone, but it was slow going. It was one of the rare instances when I couldn't do pre-interviews by phone. People were reluctant to pick up a call from an out-of-state number and when they did, they wouldn't really engage. They were very nice, always polite, but they didn't want to say too much. Rather, they suggested I "stop by" when I was in town. Once people could look me in the eye, they were open to an interview, multiple interviews. They invited friends and family along for the experience. I can't tell you how many times I went to interview one person only to find two or three or four more people in the room.

You warn listeners about the use of the n-word in ABAWWTB . How did you arrive at the decision to include the word in some places but not in others?

First, I tried not think too much about it. I just tried to cut the piece so I got the story right. Once I had a pretty tight draft, I went back into the piece and looked at how many times the word was used. It was a lot, maybe 20 or more times. We batted it around amongst ourselves at State of the Re:Union . We also called a few public radio program directors for advice. One encouraged us to eliminate the word completely or risk alienating the audience; another thought it was okay to use the word if we used it sparingly and were referencing a part of American history. Honestly, I couldn't see how I could eliminate it completely. And it felt wrong NOT to include it in some cases.When you're documenting a town that once had a sign using the n-word, when you are talking about someone who uses the word to describe himself, it's awfully hard NOT to use the word.

There were times I felt the scenes in the documentary were taking place 20, 30, 40 years ago, certainly before this country had a black president. Why does it feel like time is standing still in Pike County? I know what you mean. Sometimes it felt like I was going back in time. Juanita Harris who is only 55 years-old told me that when she was a girl, her mother would pack her lunch in an old tin bucket. She would walk a mile down the road to pump water from a well for her family. I heard similar stories all the time. Until the mid 1960s there was a one-room schoolhouse in East Jackson. Juanita Harris, Jeff Harris and lots of people I interviewed went there. Once it closed all the kids from East Jackson were sent to Waverly to be integrated into the larger school district. All of this is not to say that everyone in East Jackson lives in a sepia-colored universe. People speak about what they heard on CNN. When you go to the bar in Waverly on a Saturday night, women can be indistinguishable from characters on "Jersey Shore." The main drag in Waverly is like many American towns: strip mall after strip mall packed with gas stations, fast food and a Wal-Mart. Currently, Pike County has the highest unemployment rate in Ohio. It's a chronic problem. The local economy is almost completely independent from the national economy -- by the time Pike County starts to feel an uptick from a robust national economy, the national economy starts to slide. Pike County, it seems, can never catch up. Pike County was also slow to change when it came to civil rights. Of course, lots of things had to change with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but lots of things didn't. Lisa Goode once joked with me that the civil rights movement didn't really hit Pike County until the 1980s or 1990s. She said, "You have to understand the mindset of some people in the area. Because it's in southern Ohio and because it's in rural Appalachia, things are kind of slower here. We've always had the good old boy system and we still haven't gotten away from that.

In a way, ABAWWTB is a visual story, requiring frequent descriptions of skin and hair color of the people you spoke with. Were there advantages to telling the story through audio?

Absolutely, in fact, I think these stories are BEST told as audio. When I first came upon the story, I considered whether I should partner with a filmmaker instead of producing it as an audio documentary. I decided against a film/video production because I felt that seeing the characters would become a liability; viewers would spend too much time scrutinizing the character's faces to see if they could discern their blackness. Can you see it in Juanita's nose? Look at Clarice's hair. If viewers are scrutinizing the characters, they won't really be listening and this is a story that needs to be listened to carefully. I wish I didn't have to explain people's appearance at all. After all, it's their experiences that matter.

ABAWWTB had me thinking about my own identity and skin color. What do you hope listeners take away from the experience of hearing the story?

Race is a social construct. People here in the US - and everywhere, really - have always "mixed." We were "mixing" in the time of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. We were "mixing" before. For some insane reason, many people do not like this idea. I was taught that all of my great grandparents were Polish Roman Catholics, so I've never questioned my identity. I've always thought of myself as an American with Polish roots. The longer I stayed in East Jackson and the more I thought about race, the more I wondered, Is there really nothing else? What are the odds? How can that possibly be?

I've come to see the challenges that the families in East Jackson face as a kind of recovery from segregation and discrimination. Unfortunately, the legacy of segregation and discrimination doesn't end in one generation. In the radio piece we hear individuals and families struggle as each person chooses to form his or her own identity by choosing his or her race. The act of choosing, of being able to claim one's race for oneself, seems to be an important part of the healing process. The next step I hope is that no one from East Jackson, or anywhere, will want to choose.

When I asked Gary Harris of East Jackson, "How would you describe your race?" He said, "Human." That seems like the best way to end this.